According to Essential polling published in Crikey, most Australians are concerned about cuts to the ABC. The threatened cuts galvanised several hundred protesters to rally outside an ABC board meeting, and when Jonathan Holmes began a petition to save some of the broadcaster’s most iconic programs, it swelled to 57,000 names in under 48 hours.

The ABC is popular, and you get the sense that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull knows it. “A commercial broadcaster’s revenues are a function of its ratings. A public broadcaster’s revenues are a function of its lobbying skills,” he said in August. And when the reports surfaced that the ABC was considering cutting programs like Lateline partly in response to the budget cuts, he responded with a blog post saying the government wasn’t making the ABC cut programming, so it shouldn’t cop the blame.

It’s not just the ABC using lobbyists — the government does too, though the public relations experts Crikey spoke to this morning didn’t envy them. We set out asking whether there was anything the government could have done better in selling the cuts to the ABC, and while there was room for improvement in its strategy, most were sceptical that kind of policy would ever be popular.

“There’s fuck-all you can do,” RMIT communications professor Noel Turnbull (no relation) told Crikey. He echoed comments made to Crikey by Liberal-associated spinner Toby Ralph last week. “Mark Twain advised ‘Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel’, and even if that ink is taxpayer funded, it’s a brave government that chooses to,” Ralph said. He added that given the ABC’s popularity was far broader and deeper than the government’s, a public brawl would damage both, but damage the government more.

Ultimately, perhaps this doesn’t matter. Not everything governments do has to be popular electorally in the short term, but the ABC has been taking up a lot of the Communication Minister’s time of late. So is there anything the government can do to win the argument?

Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, a frequent guest on ABC show Gruen Planet and the chief strategy officer at ad agency cummins&partners, says governments cannot sell a message without pointing out the benefits of their actions to the voters. “To do something in a popular manner, there has to be a benefit to people. If the benefit is not made apparently clear, it’s very unlikely people will warm to it,” Ferrier told Crikey.

The cuts to the ABC were first announced in the May budget. As well as ceasing the funding for the contract given to the ABC to provide the Australia Network, the budget papers said the 1% cut in public broadcast funding was a “down payment on future efficiencies”.

This efficiencies argument is one of two the government has pursued over the ABC cuts. The other is about the ABC pulling its weight. As Malcolm Turnbull wrote on Tuesday, “there are spending cuts across government, and the public broadcasters cannot reasonably expect to be exempt. All government agencies have a duty to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used as efficiently as possible, and the ABC and SBS are no exception.”

Ferrier is sceptical either of those arguments are capable of resonating with voters. He says the “down payment on future efficiencies” bit sounds like “political gobbledygook”. And as for the bit about the ABC pulling its weight, voters have never evaluated government departments equally anyway. “Voters evaluate government departments on their individual merits. And they have a closer relationship to the ABC than they do with, say, the Australian Tax Office. I don’t think that emotional connection to the ABC was really taken into account by our politicians”.

Noel Turnbull  — who at one point ran one of Australia’s largest PR agencies — didn’t have much advice for the government. He says tackling ABC funding is a good way to lose votes. “If you cut things people like you need a good reason, and the reality is that on the subject of the ABC, the government lives in an alternate universe from the rest of the Australian public. They simply have no idea how popular it is.” Powerful people are often bad at gauging public opinion, Noel Turnbull says. They mix with their own, and this can provide inbuilt ideological reinforcement.

Part of the problem for the government is that it can’t wholesale discount the ABC. Many within its own ranks, like most of the Nationals party, are well aware how important the ABC is to their local communities.

Noel Turnbull reckons this puts the government in a bind — it can’t trash the ABC’s coverage generally for this reason, but it’s harder and more complicated to sell an argument about back-end efficiencies in an industry most people don’t understand. “Can you imagine running an argument about needing savings from back office so popular local radio programs in country Australia aren’t cut? If you can devise a way to frame and sell that message, I can name a half-dozen employers who’d snap you up,” he said.

Tomorrow: The ABC’s PR battle, and how it can fight the cuts. 

Peter Fray

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